Carl Phillips combines new poems with selected works in "Then the War"


Carl Phillips, professor of English, tells his students that writing poetry is a quest to make sense out of the confounding. It is a quest that is no less meaningful for the fact its resolution is always just outside of our grasp. Phillips’ fifteenth book of poems, Then the War: and Selected Poems, 2007 – 2020, is emblematic of the endless nature of this work, looking forward and reflecting on past work at the same time.

“I believe that poetry exists as a way of giving shape to what’s shapeless – for figuring out ways to grapple with the big abstract parts of life like love, death, morality, sex,” Phillips said. “Those aren’t resolvable, but I write in order to make at least some temporary sense of what is always eluding us.”

In Then the War, Phillips writes from the landscape of violence and conflict that has defined the past few years in the United States. Yet, he does not write with a subject in mind. Instead, he describes his process as pushing forward with the mind into unknown areas. His work is about trying to find a clear path amid the confusion of everyday life.

Then the War is a continuation of the project that has made up Carl’s career, which is an intense investigation into the self and its relationship to the world around it, both culturally and in terms of being a human in nature,” said David Schuman, director of creative writing and senior lecturer in English. “His work focuses so much on the natural world, and then puts this remarkable and interesting pressure on the relationship between the self and all that the self is composed of, all of the self’s identities.”

The final poem in the collection, “This Far In,” is one of the most deliberately personal poems Phillips has written in recent years. He said that it reflects on the wrestling with purpose and identity that he has done over the years as he tries to figure out what comes next for his life.

“The poem ends with the line, ‘Let’s see what happens,’ which is maybe all we can really say, realistically, about the future,” Phillips said. “That poem is followed by the selected earlier poems, so it’s the point in the book where the future and the past come face to face.”

The selected poems in Then the War span the previous thirteen years of Phillips’ career, including his prose memoir “Among the Trees” and his chapbook Star Map with Action Figures.

“I knew I had to work quickly. If I’m too conscious of the fact that I’m selecting poems for a book, it won’t come together, so I made my choices instinctively, in an hour one evening,” Phillips explained. “As I say to my students, on to the next poem.”

More information about Then the War can be found on the publisher’s website.